When the Coachella Valley Independent received an invitation to get into the head of Nick Cave and his fans, we could not say “no.”
So off I headed to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, as Nick Cave was wrapping up his “Conversations With Nick Cave: An Evening of Talk and Music” series, on Oct. 15. As I took my seat, the spoken-word piece “Steve McQueen” was playing over the speakers.
As Cave walked on the small stage, he was surrounded by nine round tables, at which fans sat. In front of the tables was a piano and a standing microphone. The format was straightforward: Ushers were dispersed throughout the hall; when a fan raised his or her hand, an usher would come over with a microphone. Cave chose which fans to take questions from—and it seemed he favored those in the nose-bleed seats.
The Australian singer made fans laugh and cry throughout the night. Fans achieve a special connection with musicians through their songs and the pain that artists sometimes endure—in Cave’s case, his challenges with addiction and the death of his son Arthur in 2015.
Before the event started in earnest, Cave gave fans 15 seconds to take photos. Precisely 15 seconds later, he joked, “Put that fucking thing away.” Since this was an intimate event, no photography or recording was allowed, so fans could feel free to ask anything they wanted.
Fans asked questions and sought advice from Cave as if he was a trusted therapist. Mixed into the questions were incredible piano arrangements, accompanied only by his voice, for nearly a dozen songs. Cave opened with “The Ship Song,” which was followed by “The Weeping” which set the tone for a cathartic experience.
Nick Cave explained how this tour came about: “This is a way to individualize an audience. I get as many as 100 questions a day. … I feel there is a collective need in those questions, and it’s a privilege to be part of it.”
Fans asked questions on everything from how he thinks of songs when he performs them (“A good song follows you like a friend. ‘Into My Arms’ changed after the loss of my child”) to the lack of authenticity in America (“I never found an audience not to be authentic; they are open, curious and love music”) to artists he’d like to question in a similar format (“Patti Smith. She knows how to talk about things.”).
A female fan from Perth, Australia, asked: “In what way did your living in Australia effect you?” Nick responded by saying: “All the songs very much have to do with memory and where I grew up. … Still today, being a child in a country town in Australia affected me. I had a free range childhood in Australia. … When I was 14, someone played Leonard Cohen and fucked the whole thing up.”
One fan asked about the song “Mercy Seat,” about a death-row inmate. Cave drew a contrast between his version and Johnny Cash’s cover in which Cash inferred that the condemned man was innocent. “In my version, the guy is guilty,” Cave mentioned, adding, “A criminal should never be defined by the one crime they commit.” As he did throughout the night, Cave transitioned into singing the song that was the subject of the question, much to the audience’s delight.
A fan shared: “Every time my heart is broken, I turn straight to you. Do you think love songs will save the world?” Nick quipped: “My father put poetry at the top of human achievements and rock music at the bottom. … Yes, music is one thing that will save the world. … In my view, being human is a privilege and worth saving. I am not afraid of dying. … I have existential fears of climate change, A.I., nuclear war.”
He sang “Far From Me,” about his break-up with PJ Harvey, adding: “I got a lot of songs from Polly Harvey. I got an album out of it. “
Another fan asked: “What is your relationship with instruments? Do you consider yourself an instrumentalist?” He answered with an unequivocal: “No! I consider myself an impostor to music. I am visual; musicians hear it. … With (side project) Grinderman, we had to put everything in A-minor because it’s the only key I know.”
Someone asked about living in L.A.: “I really love the openness of the people. I think L.A. people are genuine. I live up in the hills. There is all this nature—fucking hawks and skunks, and five minutes down the hill onto Sunset Boulevard, it’s like hell, and I am the most normal person there.”
A fan wanted to know: “Does Nick Cave have rules for life?” He responded: “Show people beautiful things. It’s very easy to see the worst in life these days.”
A couple of times, things got a little weird. One woman asked if Cave ever got raped. He explained jokingly, “I haven’t been raped. I’ve been molested, but I come from a country town in Australia. That is how we find out about stuff.”
On a more serious note, an audience member asked him about getting sober. “My big fear (was) if I gave up drugs, I would not be able to be creative.” He explained that when he was contemplating getting sober, he did not see any of his sober peers creating anything “incredible” post0sobriety. He said he was relieved that was not the case when he became “clean.”
As things were wrapping up, a fan named Aaron asked how people were selected to sit at the onstage circular tables. Cave explained they were selected randomly—and asked if Aaron wanted to join him onstage. A fan behind Cave stood up, gesturing for Aaron to sit in his chair. Instead, Aaron walked onstage and sat on the piano bench next to Nick. A stage manager began walking toward them, but Cage waved him off, allowing Aaron to sit on the piano bench with him as he played the last song, “Stagger Lee.” Aaron hammed it up, and Cave had to tell him “no interpretive dancing” was allowed.
In an era of scripted small talk, it was amazing to see Nick Cave open up to his fans. The night was a testament to how music moves fans—and the courage Cave has to open up about his life and music.